SAN FRANCISCO — Vera Farmiga never comes right out and says she believes in ghosts.
But it's obvious she takes the role she plays in “The Conjuring” very seriously, and she has the utmost respect and affection for the 86-year-old woman sitting next to her during recent round-table interviews with reporters, hosted by New Line Cinema at the Ritz Carlton Hotel.
The older woman is world-famous paranormal investigator Lorraine Warren, whom Farmiga portrays in the film they're here to promote.
“What I loved about this is this fascinating woman here to my right, and embodying her,” the actress said. “And that was just a treat for me. When we met for the first time, I was so excited. I had done a lot of research prior. There's a lot of information through the decades. There's so much footage, and the obvious questions are all answered time and time again. And I think, really, to me, I didn't see it as a horror story, I saw it as a love story.”
“The Conjuring,” directed by James Wan (“Saw,” “Insidious”) from a script by Chad Hayes and Carey W. Hayes, is based on true events in the lives of married paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren, focusing on a 1970 case in which they were called upon to help a family terrorized by a dark presence in a secluded farmhouse.
Patrick Wilson (“Insidious”) plays Ed, a noted demonologist, author and lecturer who passed away in 2006. The residents of the house are Roger and Carolyn Perron (played by Ron Livingston and Lili Taylor) and their five daughters.
Lorraine was — and still is — a professed clairvoyant and light-trance medium who worked closely with her husband for decades.
“I remember first going to that home in Rhode Island, and when you walked in that house, just walked in, you felt the vibrations,” Lorraine Warren said. “And when you looked at those children, oh, it was terrible. That was terrible to look at those children. And they'd hold on to me. You know, hold on to my skirt, hold on to me in some way.”
What follows in the weeks and months is an ever-escalating and often brutal battle royale between the Warrens and the Perrons and a profoundly evil demonic spirit that's fighting to possess one of the family members while threatening the lives of everyone else involved.
Many of the shocks and horrors in “The Conjuring” have inspired comparisons to William Friedkin's 1973 classic, “The Exorcist.”
“We know the genre,” Farmiga said. “But, what draws me to it is this story of compassion and empathy and concern for others, and knowing when we need help and when we need to give help. And I think what I marvel at is how she uses her God-given gift, how she puts herself in the line of fire, and helps people achieve peace of mind, peace of spirit, when hers isn't always at peace.
“And then there's all these beautiful videos on YouTube,” she said. “And the union was ordained between her and Ed. It was a match made in heaven. You can see that from their rapport with each other. It is so rare to have a coupling and love decade after decade that is so full of honor and respect, and you look at each other in the eyes, you laugh at each other's jokes, you listen to each other and it's such a beautiful love.”
‘Want you to love her'
The New Jersey-born actress with the soulful, pale-blue eyes, tawny blond hair and delicate features, now 39, has appeared in dozens of features and TV productions since her career began in 1997, perhaps most notably opposite George Clooney in 2009's “Up in the Air,” which brought her an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actress.
Maybe three of her features could be classified as horror films — “Joshua” (2007), “Orphan” (2009) and now “The Conjuring” — but she's also earning acclaim as the infamous Norma Bates — mother of Norman Bates — in the modern re-imagining and prequel to the Hitchcock classic “Psycho,” A&E's “Bates Motel,” which just started shooting its second season.
But she's not concerned about becoming the next “scream queen.”
“To me, ‘Orphan' or ‘Joshua,' these aren't horror,” Farmiga said. “There are horrifying moments, but for me, if I look at ‘Bates Motel,' or ‘Orphan' or ‘Joshua,' these stories are about maternal struggle and maternal angst, and various levels of it. ‘Orphan' is a couple who has experienced the most complex grief a couple can endure, which is a stillbirth, and ‘Joshua' was psychotic postpartum depression.
“And ‘Bates Motel' is about a troubled mother herself who just wants her neurologically dysfunctioning child to have a life that's enhancing to him.”
Later, in a one-on-one interview with The Oklahoman, Farmiga is asked how she manages to make one of the most infamous fictional characters in all of cinema — the smothering “Mrs. Bates” — even remotely sympathetic.
“Yeah, that's my flair,” Farmiga said with a laugh. “I want you to love her. I really do. I want you to love her, acknowledge her flaws. You know, I'm not disregarding those. She has a very painful history and hasn't correctly dealt with that — the grief, the anger, the hurt, the guilt over things that have occurred in her past.
“But I still want you to root for her, and hope against hope that she doesn't meet her demise, her inevitable demise.”
Decide for yourself?
Meanwhile Farmiga, mother to a 2- and a 6-year-old, is somehow managing home and her career as an increasingly in-demand performer, just finishing a new drama with Robert Downey Jr. and Robert Duvall called “The Judge,” and looking at the possibility that “The Conjuring” may become a franchise, depending on its box office performance.
So, does she really believe in a dark spirit world, where evil dwells and can actually inflict harm on the living?
She refers the reporter to several occurrences in the film where one of the characters keeps waking up in the morning with mysterious bruises on various parts of her body that appear to have been inflicted by claws.
“The film started and ended with it. The claw marks,” she said. “Well, my first creative conversation with James (Wan), I had just done hours of research on the computer, watching Lorraine in videos. ... We had a conversation. I decided to take the job after we spoke, and with the stipulation that Patrick Wilson plays Ed. I hung up, opened my computer and there were three digital claw marks across the screen.
“So, long story short, last day on set, we wrapped the film, I fly home with my family, next morning I wake up to this on my thigh.”
And she holds up a photo showing three parallel bruise lines on her leg.
“I mean, I bruise easily,” she said, her blue eyes widening. “But it's usually in the shape of Antarctica. It's usually a blob. Unless I had a mosquito bite and I scratched with these three fingers the entire night.”
Travel and accommodations proved by Warner Bros. Pictures.